Annie Oakley (1860-1926) was a famed sharpshooter and performer of the American Old West. Born in rural Ohio, Oakley shot her first squirrel at the age of 8 and beat a professional marksman in a shooting competition when she was just 15. Soon enough, Oakley was renowned across the globe for her abilities as a hunter and a gunslinger.
Oakley’s abilities with a rifle saw her become one of the star attractions of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, in which she would shoot cigarettes out of people’s mouths, pick off targets while blindfolded and split playing cards in half with her bullets. Her act took her around the world and saw her perform to vast audiences and European royals.
Here are 10 facts about legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
1. She was born in Ohio
Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Mosey – or Moses, by some sources – on 13 August 1860. She was one of 7 surviving children, and her sisters took to calling her ‘Annie’ rather than Phoebe.
Although Oakley grew to become a legendary figure of the American frontier, she was actually born and raised in Ohio.
2. She started hunting from a young age
Annie’s father is believed to have been a proficient hunter and trapper. From a young age, Annie accompanied him on hunting expeditions.
At the age of 8, Annie took her father’s rifle and, balancing it on the porch rail, shot a squirrel across the yard. It’s said that she shot it in the head, meaning more meat could be salvaged. This marked Oakley’s first step towards a long and successful shooting career.
3. Legend has it that her hunting paid off the family mortgage
Oakley’s shooting skills were so exceptional, the story goes, that as a young girl she managed to hunt and sell enough game that she could pay off her family’s mortgage.
It’s said that Annie sold the meat to a store in Cincinnati, Ohio, and saved up all of the earnings until she had enough to buy the family farm in one payment.
4. She won a shooting match aged 15
By the time Oakley was 15, she was renowned in local circles for her remarkable shooting skills. Having heard word of her abilities, a Cincinnati hotelier organised a shooting competition between Oakley and a professional marksman, Frank Butler.
In the shooting march, Butler hit 24 of his 25 targets. Oakley, on the other hand, didn’t miss a single shot.
5. She married the marksman she beat
It seems Butler and Oakley hit it off during that shooting competition: the following year, in 1876, the pair married. They would remain together for the rest of their lives – some five decades – until Annie died in early November 1926. Butler died just 18 days after her.
6. She starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show
Butler and Oakley performed in circuses together as a sharpshooting double act. Eventually, Butler began to manage Annie as a solo act. And in 1885, she was employed by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which popularised and dramatised the American Old West to huge audiences around the globe.
In the show, Annie performed various feats of marksmanship and was billed as ‘Little Sure Shot’ or the ‘Peerless Lady Wing-Shot’. She was one of the production’s most prized performers.
7. She was friends with Sitting Bull
Sitting Bull was a Teton Dakota leader who famously led a victorious battle over General Custer’s men at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In 1884, Sitting Bull witnessed Oakley’s sharpshooting act and was hugely impressed.
A year later, Sitting Bull himself joined Buffalo Bill’s travelling show for a short stint, during which time he and Oakley are said to have become close friends. Sitting Bull may have first given Oakley the nickname ‘Little Sure Shot’. She later wrote of him, “he is a dear, faithful old friend, and I’ve great respect and affection for him.”
8. She could shoot a playing card from 30 paces
Oakley’s most famous tricks included: shooting coins out of the air, shooting lit cigars from Butler’s mouth, splitting a playing card in two ‘from 30 paces’, and even shooting targets directly behind her by using a mirror to aim the gun behind her head.
9. She performed to Queen Victoria
When Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show ventured to Europe, the acts pulled in huge audiences and even royalty. According to legend, Annie brought the future Kaiser Wilhelm II (he was a prince at the time) into her act while visiting Berlin, apparently shooting the ash off a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Another of Annie’s royal viewers was Queen Victoria, whom Oakley performed to as part of the Wild West show in 1887.
10. She offered to raise a regiment of ‘lady sharpshooters’ for the US army
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Oakley petitioned President William McKinley to allow her to help the war effort. In her letter, she apparently offered to rally a regiment of 50 ‘lady sharpshooters’, all of whom could supply their own guns and ammo, to fight in the conflict on the side of America. Her offer was refused.
She made a similar offer upon hearing of the outbreak of World War One.
Ultimately, Oakley never went to war for America. Into the early 20th century, as the Wild West faded further from view, Annie slowly stepped back from public life. She died in Greenville, Ohio, in 1926.